IT HELD elections in April. But Nepal is still without a government. On July 23rd, however, it did acquire a president, Ram Baran Yadav, a peasant’s son from the southern Terai plains. This follows the abolition of the 239-year-old monarchy. The former king, Gyanendra, has been granted an official forest retreat to sulk in.
The election, for a Constituent Assembly, which, besides being responsible for drafting a new constitution, doubles as a parliament, was won by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). For a decade from 1996, the Maoists waged a vicious insurgency against the government. Now, they took 220 of the assembly’s 601 seats but were unable to form the government. As the other parties reeled from defeat at the polls, the Maoists seem to have overestimated their own strength. Rather than forge a government of national unity, they were arrogant, publicly deriding other party leaders as “losers”.
An interim constitution calls for consensus. It was assumed that this would mean a Maoist-led coalition, with big jobs shared: the second-largest party, the Nepali Congress, would take the presidency (a largely ceremonial role); another big party, the United Marxist-Leninist, would chair the assembly; and a relative newcomer, from the Terai, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, would have the vice-presidency.
No one challenged the Maoists’ right to lead the government. So foreign donors and diplomats ingratiated themselves with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as “Prachanda”, the Maoists’ supremo. The Maoists started announcing their policies—a “radical transformation”, including land reform and a doubling of government expenditure (without explaining where the resources would come from). In a more abandoned moment, Prachanda even said that the current political exercise was just a way-station on the road to a “people’s republic”, to be achieved, if necessary, through an “October revolution”.
A government could not be formed, however, without first electing a president, to whom the sitting caretaker prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, could hand in his resignation. The Maoists sought to foist their own presidential candidates on the other parties. One was a septuagenarian revolutionary, whose party had made an abysmal showing in the elections, and whose claim to fame was a series of deadly bombings in Kathmandu in 1985. This galvanised the other parties to co-operate in finding a non-Maoist candidate.
In the indirect presidential election, Mr Yadav, a long-time Congress leader from the Terai plains and a medical doctor by training, won the votes of almost all the other parties. He is seen as a capable man—so Nepal has been pulled back from the brink. Mr Koirala has been able to tender his resignation. And the long-delayed formation of a national-unity government seems possible. The Maoists, stung by this defeat, and with unreconciled radicals in their ranks, will shun the compromises needed to lead it. But the past three months have been a learning period—not just about the nitty-gritty of parliamentary haggling but, more fundamentally, about not overreaching themselves.
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